So after all that – six losses in seven games, rampant bubble speculation and a degenerating defense dropping few hints of positive change to come – Illinois is sitting pretty again, right as college basketball scribes everywhere were prepared to bury the team for good.
Trailing by 10 with four minutes and change to play against top-ranked Indiana, John Groce’s resilient bunch put the “Fighting” back in “Illini,” all the while resuscitating an NCAA tournament candidacy formerly left for dead. D.J. Richardson led the crusade, then Johnny-on-the-spot’s layup as time expired finished off an improbable conquest.
Winning the battle was fulfilling unto itself, a moment the Orange Crush can cherish however the rest of the season unfolds. But on the larger scale of satisfying preseason expectations, which Groce set high when he took over the program last March, Thursday’s result means even more in the way of positioning for the war on Selection Sunday.
Thursday night’s shifty sequence of events reaffirmed last spring’s changing of the guard in Champaign. This isn’t the 2011-12 edition of Illinois basketball, the one that sent Bruce Weber onto the free agent coaching market and Meyers Leonard to the pros two years ahead of schedule. Sure, both teams followed the same seasonal pattern – a hot start in the non-conference shelved as soon as Big Ten play rolls around – but only Groce’s Illini have shown the spirit to alter the course.
With a pull-away win on the road at Gonzaga, a thumping of Ohio State at Assembly Hall and furious rally to clip the Hoosiers, Illinois has what 345 other Division-1 teams don’t: three wins over Top 10 opponents, all achieved through radically different means. Only Duke can say the same short of one notable difference – two of Duke’s top-10 wins are against teams no longer in the Top 10.
At 16-8, in possession of the sixth best strength of schedule and four wins over the RPI Top 25, Illinois, despite its 3-7 conference record, is in good stead as far as its March prospects. Better yet, the toughest part of the team’s schedule is now in its rear view mirror. After a showdown with Minnesota at the Barn on Sunday evening, five of the Illini’s next six games are against the bottom-half of the conference.
Just when you thought “here we go again” with this eerily familiar group in orange, year one of the Groce era submitted evidence of progressive separation from the Weber administration. These Fighting Illini are, in fact, different, and they have the résumé to prove it.